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Posted by Ria Sethi

The lockdown has given us, well, at least the middle and upper privileged classes, a lot of thinking time but even in this life of relative privilege, our mothers are the ones toiling away in the kitchen, de facto replacing the underpaid women workers in light of this deadly pandemic, while the other members of the family rediscover old hobbies or laze in front of their laptops devouring social media and binge-watching Netflix series. I can’t help but wonder – “When did housework so naturally become the sole prerogative of the female?

In a bid to try and equalise this disproportionality of work, attributed so effortlessly to women, I racked my brain, made excel sheets to divide the housework equally amongst all family members – yes the whole intermittent meals, sweeping and mopping the floor and even washing a constant stream of dirty dishes, and optimistically stuck it on the refrigerator’s door.

Capitalism keeps reinventing its forms of exploitation, be it by creating separate spheres of work or the globalised world of financial capitalism where global firms relocate manufacturing to low wage, insecure, subordinate workers.

I would lie if I wasn’t half expecting it to crash and burn, and it did succeed in not even lasting a day before it fell apart; there were kitchen mishaps, my grand mom refused to compromise on taste and each experimental meal which led to an explosion in the kitchen, followed by reinforcements that usually resulted in the women of the house taking charge of the kitchen again. Well silly me, what I tried to solve through management, was in actuality a much bigger ploy that had a whole history of exploitation attached to it.

Housework – It’s Invisible, Unwaged And Not ‘Naturally’ So!

We need to dig into a little history for that. And yes, if there is a question of exploitation, how can links to capitalism be any farther from it?

Social reproduction has its roots in answering a very important but mostly neglected question – that of what goes into reproducing the worker and where is it accounted for – the worker’s meals, sleep, education, public transport, in short everything that allows him to be regenerated for another day of work. Capitalist societies have separated the worker in the workplace and the women in the household and pay the former through wage and the latter through acts of love and this precise division is what subjugates women, placing them at the mercy of the wage-earner and hence, the husband becomes supreme, just by earning a living wage. 

Housework has a characteristically different nature. It has been imposed on women, and made to feel as if it is a ‘natural‘ attribute of the female personality. But the naturalness of this attribute stems nowhere from the depths of the ‘female character’, but is a part of capital’s scheme to convince us that it is natural, unavoidable and even fulfilling, so that it is destined to be unwaged.

The economic importance of reproduction of labour power carried out in homes and its function as relative surplus in the accumulation of capital is precisely what made housework invisible, mystified it as natural vocation and labelled it as ‘women’s labour‘. With their activities defined as non-work, women become a communal good and their labour begins to resemble natural resources like air and sunlight. (I’m trying really hard, for this not to sound like a conspiracy, but believe it or not, that’s what it bluntly is, a capitalist conspiracy connived to keep the cogs of accumulation running.)

A worker’s relation to capital is completely mystified but he still has a defined social relation through a social contract where he can bargain and struggle for higher wages.

Also read: The Kochi Biennale Exhibition Controversy: Blatant Elitism And Exploitation Of The Labour Class

However, housework has a characteristically different nature. It has been imposed on women, and made to feel as if it is a ‘natural‘ attribute of the female personality. But the naturalness of this attribute stems nowhere from the depths of the ‘female character’, but is a part of capital’s scheme to convince us that it is natural, unavoidable and even fulfilling, so that it is destined to be unwaged. Housework is not recognised as productive or even work and hence any struggle against it, is ridiculed by righting us off as quarrelsome nagging bitches. The unnaturalness of this being a female attribute also finds its reasoning in the fact that it requires endless socialisation and unpaid training for years together, by mothers to prepare women for this role. 

The role of women, as a servant to the working class, offering their physical, emotional and sexual services on cue, adds to the invisible and burdensome nature of housework. The nature of housework is so transient and particularly never ending, be it cleaning, only to get it dirty the next morning, cooking food – that is consumed, only to be served again to satiate hunger on cue or care – one sided, constantly demanded and conveniently vanishes into thin air. Even after years of toiling and back breaking labour, even a 70-year-old looks back in regret and disbelief as she has nothing to build upon and nothing to call as her life’s work.

The role of women, as a servant to the working class, offering their physical, emotional and sexual services on cue, adds to the invisible and burdensome nature of housework. The nature of housework is so transient and particularly never ending, be it cleaning, only to get it dirty the next morning, cooking food – that is consumed, only to be served again to satiate hunger on cue or care – one sided, constantly demanded and conveniently vanishes into thin air.

And do not think you can escape this fraud, by not marrying or working outside, as once it is totally naturalised into a female attribute, all females will have no choice but be characterised by it. Capitalism keeps reinventing its forms of exploitation, be it by creating separate spheres of work or the globalised world of financial capitalism where global firms relocate manufacturing to low wage, insecure, subordinate workers who act as cheap labour reserve due to their forced absence required for child bearing and rearing.

Also the idea of emancipation through working outside: if you think being a ‘career woman’, you can escape the much-dreaded housework, then think again, which underpaid migrant woman are you exploiting to escape your oppression. And we don’t have to any longer prove that women can do what men do, because we are doing it, taking on double burdens and in it having much longer working hours than men. Hence, the superhero that is a housemaid, nurse, therapist and a prostitute – are all forms of exploitation, and their supposed heroism isn’t supposed to be celebrated on Mothers’ Day.

So, then what is the alternative?

Iceland got its first female president along with making gender discrimination illegal. This led to a massive reduction in gender and education gaps in 1975.

Also read: Book Review: Breast Stories by Mahasweta Devi, A Metaphor For Exploitation

What did they do you ask?

Women in Iceland challenged the role carved out very systematically for them by capitalism, by simply going on a strike, by serving a notice to the world, “We want wages for every dirty toilet , every indecent assault, every painful childbirth, every cup of coffee and every smile and if we don’t, we will simply refuse to work any longer.


Ria Sethi is currently pursuing her masters in Labor Studies and Development from Jawarharlal Nehru University while secretly planning for all womankind to unite and take over the world. She will hunt you down, if you mess with her stationery. Irrationally idealistic, the only time she’s not chewing mint, is when she’s having chai. Consciously trying to end this bio, before it turns into another rant, like all her conversations.

Featured Image Source: The Indian Express

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